PC Police and Conservative Persecution Complex
A lot of conservatives are under the impression that they are a widely maligned, politically persecuted group in the United States. Read this delusional piece by professional fabulist Dennis Prager as a good for instance. If you’re partial to statistics, this might do the trick: Around 73% of Republicans think the FBI and Department of Justice are enacting partisan campaigns to undermine President Donald Trump. Remember, the people in charge of both organizations are Republicans appointed by Donald Trump. Watch any amount of Fox News or listen to any amount of conservative talk radio for similar results.
At the same time, there is a breed of intolerance blossoming on the far left. It has yet to take a shape even vaguely redolent of the sweeping anti-Republican pogrom some conservatives envision. Nevertheless, it is an unmistakable drive to build a sanctuary for a high-octane version of liberal orthodoxy. The clearest, most widely publicized front of this campaign has been college campuses. There, activist students and professors have sought to badger, ostracize, and silence the people they disagree with. But it is also visible online, where so-called social justice warriors* (better characterized as “virtue-signalers”) aim to fight white supremacy by harassing high school girls for their choice of prom dress. It’s not obvious what any of this is accomplishing, but it does lend support to the sense of persecution many conservatives share. This, in fact, might be the most salient consequence of far left social media and campus activism.
The conservative sense of persecution is largely imaginary. However, the political provincialism growing on the far left grants this sense of abuse real-world anchorage. It’s not that obvious instances of harassment and cruelty toward conservatives are particularly widespread or in any way comparable to the kinds insults faced by the truly oppressed. Rather, it’s that these instances — however frequent — represent both a sad betrayal of liberal values and an egregious tactical error. If someone is already prone to hearing voices, it’s probably not a good idea to start whispering in their ear.
Conservative Persecution Complex
Here are a few brief facts:
–61% of Americans identify as non-Hispanic white
–71% of Americans identify as Christian
–83% of Americans are either absolutely or fairly certain there is a god
–36% of Americans identify as conservative, compared to 24% liberal
–24% of Americans identify as Republicans, 29% as Democrats
–63 million Americans voted for Donald Trump; 66 million voted for Hillary Clinton
A Republican president sits in the White House. Republican majorities control both chambers of congress. Five of nine Supreme Court Justices share conservative inclinations. Republicans control the house, senate, and governor’s office in 26 states. They control the governor’s office in eight other states, both chambers of congress in seven, and at least one chamber in three.
One thing needs to be absolutely clear: conservatives, whites, men, Christians, or any combination thereof are not the victims of any kind of widespread mistreatment in the United States. White people are still the major demographic group in the United States. Most Americans are Christian. Still more believe in god. Most with some kind of polar political affiliation cleave to conservatism. The places where liberals win out — for instance, party affiliation or four of the last five popular presidential votes — they don’t do so by huge margins. To the extent that Democrats occupy certain majorities, they tend to wield their influence with supreme incompetence. See, for instance, the 2016 election outcome or the fact that Republicans control all of the Federal and most state governments.
That’s not to say conservatives are always treated fairly. But that’s not particularly distinctive: for every insufferable liberal calling a pro-life, small government crusader a neo-fascist there is a fuming conservative calling environmentally conscious, pro social safety net activists libtards or communists. Intransigence and acrimony fester from pole to pole on the modern political landscape. Polarization drove nuance to the hinterlands years ago.
The thing is, it might be impossible to find a purer distillation of wailing victimhood culture and unhinged snowflakery than a person who hears “Happy Holidays” (of which “Merry Christmas” is a subset, mind you) as a declaration of war against their most cherished beliefs. That’s like someone claiming their birthday party was ruined because there was enough cake for everyone.
It is true that the aforementioned demographics are shifting. The U.S. population is becoming less white, less Christian, less religious, and less conservative. But there isn’t evidence that these trends are translating into the United States becomes less safe for white, Christian, conservative Americans.
Mostly these demographic trends seems to be translating into a wider range of views gaining increasing prominence. And this seems to be the primary source of conservative persecution complex. It’s not that packs of rabid LGBTQ activists and Trotskyites looking to assimilate them into the liberal collective are harrying them across the land. Instead, Western culture has become more open and pluralistic — both positive developments. Christianity, traditional family structures, and other putatively conservative value systems were once paid automatic deference throughout American culture. That is less and less the case. Many conservatives see a society that makes room for others as a society in which there is less room for them. They have a hard time seeing that they don’t have fewer seats at the table than they did in the past. The table just has more seats.
How PC Culture Feeds the Conservative Persecution Complex
Mostly, the conservative sense of victimhood is a fabrication. It finds its surest footing, however, whenever liberals treat a prom dress as a gesture of colonial exploitation or crude ideas about gender or race as crimes against humanity. There is something amiss when student protesters feel obliged to shout down or even assault speakers with whom they disagree. Milo Yiannopoulos is a moral ogre bent on a fevered quest for attention and personal aggrandizement. But calling him a fascist or Nazi saps both terms of important meaning and makes people even marginally sympathetic to some of his beliefs feel stigmatized.
To my knowledge, there is no evidence that silencing microaggressions, instituting trigger warnings, haranguing or assaulting speakers who stray from liberal orthodoxy, and social media crusades against people who trespass the invisible boundaries of cultural propriety actually improve the lives of people on the fringes of society. These do sometimes represent responses to actions that we would all do well to examine more closely. The words we say and the choices we make as consumers do have an effect on society. We should be mindful that their influence is worthwhile. If someone finds another person’s words hurtful, we should talk about it thoughtfully and openly. But that’s not the tone of the conversation. Instead, person can shift from pedestrian to cultural villain in the space of a poorly phrased comment or accidently offensive dip into an unfamiliar culture.
There are not a lot of calm, well-reasoned arguments that silencing speakers or harassing people for thoughtless commentary helps to mitigate racism or sexism or homophobia. There is, however, a compelling argument that these behaviors serve as a form of social currency. Pointing out instances of cultural appropriation and silencing offensive ideas signals commitment to a code and membership in a certain tribe. An unfortunate side effect is that it also reinforces the conservative suspicion that their way of life (which, like most Americans, seems to consist primarily of a mix banal consumerism and a healthy interest in the wellbeing of family and friends) is under threat.
Note here that this is not a reliable signal of virtue. So, as others have pointed out, the widely applied term virtue signaling is a bit of a misnomer. Stomping on microaggressions or upbraiding someone for making tortillas the wrong way (or making them the right way with the wrong skin tone) doesn’t reliably signal a virtuous character. But in the parlance of evolutionary biology and anthropology, it does make sense to describe it as a form of signaling. First, it requires effort to dig up apparent trivialities and publicize them as unconscionable transgressions. Second, the dubiousness of the purported crimes entails some potential reputational cost. After all, there’s usually a chance that people will look at the accusation and think, often rightly, that it is a little unfair or ridiculous. By serving as the canary in the coal mine of ham-fisted attempts at flattery and unsanctioned cultural exploration, virtue signalers are transmitting a simple message to the like-minded: I am one of you.
PC culture is about group identity. It is about clarifying the boundaries of the righteous clan. If you can spot a cultural offense and seize it like a crocodile on a thirsty wildebeest you’ll receive all the accolades and retweets the censorious guardians of liberal purity have to offer. You will, so doing, signal that anyone who takes a minute to grasp the source of offense — or, worse still, fails to see it entirely — is on the Outside.
Evidence that reactionary censorship is an effective tool for social justice campaigns is scant at best. The same is true of the claim that conservatives are somehow the targets of widespread or institutionalized persecution. Yet feeling culturally marginalized and under assault (regardless of how well those feelings reflect reality) can prove politically motivating. Thus, one can make a case that the censorious left has played a role in mobilizing the political right. Many Trump voters self-report that they voted for an obviously odious buffoon as a reaction to PC culture. Granted, that’s a pretty dumb reason to vote for someone. That doesn’t mean in can’t be motivating. Likewise, a recent study suggests status concerns gave impetus to Trump votes. These concerns are ill-placed, formed in a cauldron of delusion and prejudice. Yet they find their strongest purchase when verifiable instances of liberals vilifying and harassing conservatives (or even insufficiently liberal liberals) begin traversing the conservative media ecosystem.
Curiously, this seems to be a case of sensitivity in one camp feeding sensitivity in another. The puritanical champions of PC culture are valorizing hypersensitivity, thereby contributing to a culture that rewards outrage and offense. You can accrue a lot of social capital by treating the uglier ideas of Charles Murray or the more misguided costume choices of middle-class white kids us unconscionable assaults on historically marginalized or exploited groups. Unfortunately, the resulting outbursts make headlines that give the hunted disposition of modern conservatives their surest anchor outside the realm of imagination.
Tactically, the left would do well to back away from those who vilify or harass their political opponents. One needn’t adopt milquetoast ideals and abandon concerns over the wellbeing of vulnerable groups to recognize that their most strident methods are backfiring. Both sides need thicker hides. A culture that finds intolerable offense in disagreement and criticism is culture in decline. Politics is a game of compromise and persuasion. Rarely is it zero-sum, yet that’s the way both sides are playing it. The first side to abandon tribalist virtue signaling and reactionary hypersensitivity in favor of thoughtful engagement and strategic bargaining will be the side that carries the day.
*Social justice warrior or SJW is a term I’ve used before. Recently I’ve grown uncomfortable with it. Originally, the term was deployed ironically. After all, the people some folks were calling SJWs were really nothing of the sort. Their behavior and tactics aren’t those of people actively seeking to improve the plight of troubled or persecuted groups. It is the behavior of people who want to be seen as people actively seeking to improve the plight of troubled or persecuted groups. Their motivations are largely aesthetic. Social justice is a good thing. Someone fighting for social justice — a “social justice warrior,” as it were — would be worthy of admiration. That is not the sort of person the term SJW is used to describe and, consequently, using that term can lead some to mistake the target of opprobrium. Social justice is good. People who use it as a tool to bludgeon differently-minded individuals for the primary purpose of signalling their virtuous commitment to the beleaguered and downtrodden (consciously or unconsciously) are noxious assholes.
Originally published at highplainsskeptic.com on October 3, 2018.